Unity not uniformity

Easter 7 – 2019

John 17:20-26

Marian Free

In the name of God who draws us into union with Godself and with one another. Amen.

Ten days ago Archbishop Phillip shared with us the letter sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury to all the Bishops of the Anglican Communion. The letter urged all Anglican Bishops to attend the Lambeth Conference in 2020. Archbishop Justin Welby acknowledged the differences of opinion that led a number of conservative Bishops to organize their own conference in 2008, but encouraged them to attend the next Lambeth Conference to ensure that their point of view was heard. Already four Primates of the Anglican Church have announced their intention not to attend. Last Sunday the ABC news reported that a large proportion of the Uniting Church was planning to secede from the Uniting Church Conference citing in particular the Conference’s making same sex marriage a matter of conscience for individual ministers. During the same time period in New Zealand a group of Anglicans formed their own, separate Diocese under the umbrella of the GAFCON and for at least a decade, Anglican Bishops have been ordaining clergy in Dioceses that are not their own, and parishes have been aligning themselves with Dioceses to which they do not geographically belong.

All over the world, and in a number of denominations, the church is being torn apart by differences of opinion – primarily over the issue of homosexuality and same sex marriage but also in relation to the role of women and the interpretation of the bible. Claiming the high moral ground, the conservatives argue that the liberals have compromised the gospel, a gospel that they believe demands that we adhere to clear, unchanging moral guidelines. Liberals, on the other hand, claim that the gospel demonstrates God’s inclusive love and point to Jesus’ willingness to break the rules to make that love a reality in the lives of those who were marginalized, excluded or limited by those rules.

The issues on which we differ are not always clear cut, but are complicated by such things as local culture, history and the ownership of property. The world wide Anglican communion, which has held together since the Reformation, is now straining at the seams.

Today’s gospel comes towards the end of Jesus’ farewell speech in which he prays for the disciples who must carry on in his absence. Jesus prays that the disciples will be protected from the ‘evil one’ but more importantly he prays that the disciples might be one, as he and the Father are one: ‘so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (17:20,23). Unity among the disciples, in fact among believers generally, is so important that Jesus repeats the prayer within six verses.

‘May they be one as you and I are one, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ In Jesus’ mind unity is a prerequisite of mission. A unified community is itself a witness to Jesus and Jesus’ union with God. A unified community does away with the need to proclaim dogmas, to demand adherence to a code of behaviour or to insist on one or another interpretation of scripture. Unity among believers is sufficient evidence of the presence of Jesus among them and of the union between Jesus and God. According to this point of view, creative outreach programmes, exciting, modern music and Bill Graham style evangelism campaigns would all be redundant if those who profess to believe in Jesus could only live in unity with one another.

The question then becomes: “what is unity?” Is it uniformity or is it mutual respect? My money is on the latter. It seems to me that scripture is anything but prescriptive and, even if it were, none of us are able to travel in time back to the first century to learn exactly what Jesus said or what the various writers of the New Testament meant when they recorded Jesus’ sayings. We can’t ask Paul to explain his ideas, nor can we really get an accurate sense of what it was like to be a believer in first century Palestine or the eastern Mediterranean.

Unity is not related to the minutiae of Christian practice but to the broader picture of faith. What Christians have in common is our absolute confidence in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, in the risen Jesus who is present with us and in the Holy Spirit who directs and inspires us. It is our relationship with God – Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier – that unites us. This being the case, we do not have to force others to think in exactly the same way as we do rather we, and they, could learn to trust that we are all doing our very best to submit our lives to the God who revealed Godself in Jesus and to follow in the footsteps of Jesus who is the perfect example of obedience and faithfulness.

If the different parts of Christendom learned to trust and respect each other, to believe that we are all in our own way striving to develop our relationship with the risen Christ, trying to be open to the presence of God and anxious to align ourselves with the direction of the Holy Spirit, the antagonism between the warring factions would diminish and even disappear.

No one truly knows the mind of God and it is the utmost arrogance for any of us to presume that it is we, not someone else who has the first claim on God’s truth. Instead of trying to prove that we are right and that others are wrong, perhaps it is time that we started to mind our own business, to ‘work out our own salvation with fear and trembling’ and to allow others to do the same. If our primary focus was our relationship with God -Earth-maker, Pain-bearer and Life-giver – we might stop worrying abut what others do and do not believe and use the time and effort to concentrate on ourselves – on our own behaviour, our own attitudes and our own weaknesses. If our central concern was the building up of our own faith, we would not be obsessively concerned with externals – who can marry whom or who can be ordained – but with the deeper issues of vulnerability, humility and our dependence on God.

Jesus prayed that we might be one so that the world might believe through us. If we seek to draw others to the faith we must find a way to end factionalism, to cease competing as to who is right and who is wrong, and to seek, not uniformity, but the unity that comes from our shared faith in the Triune God revealed by our Saviour and Risen Lord, Jesus the Christ.

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